Splendour and Mystery/ Sydney Chamber Choir
Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Australian Digital Concert Hall
25 March, 2023
In Splendour and Mystery, Sydney Chamber Choir under the direction of Sam Allchurch joined forces with Camerata Antica led by Matthew Manchester and organist Thomas Wilson in an adventurous anthology of music written for double choir. Specialising in the music of the 16th and 17th centuries, the founder of Camerata Antica, Matthew Manchester playing the fiendishly difficult cornetto, was joined by Michael Wyborn, William Kinmont and Paolo Franks playing the equally challenging alto, tenor and bass sackbutts respectively.
Bookended with pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli with one of his refreshing Canzonas in the middle, the program also contained music by living Australasian composers Clare Maclean and Brooke Shelley, Gabrieli’s contemporary and student Heinrich Schütz and 20th century composers John Tavener and Frank Martin. Together these composers explore and exploit the potential of the double choir with its opportunities for super-rich harmonies, added melodic lines, imitation, choral interplay and variations in the positioning of the singers.
The opening motet, Gabrieli’s Jubilate Deo omnis terra, C 65 was quite literally a musical shout for joy. A major part of this journey back in time to Renaissance Venice was the unique sound of Camerata Antica. Heralded by the instruments, the 10 lines of the choir sang an uplifting, lively and tightly dotted chorus, alternating with homophonic passages. Allchurch and his ensemble clearly delineated the rhythms, changing time signatures, hemiolas and other displaced accents which created the buoyancy of this celebratory piece.
John Tavener’s brilliant A Hymn to the Mother of God transcends the mortal and looks to the cosmic powers of Mother Mary. Writing in the style of canon, with imitative lines that start in quick succession and not necessarily in harmony, Tavener creates a sense of ‘other-worldliness’ in this simple but awe-inducing piece in three-sections. It was a slow burn as the two choirs sang with shimmering lightness and a sense of spinning through space, creating vivid colours and clusters of clashing chords with impressive control as the voices rose in range and dynamic to its full-bodied climax.
The program moved imperceptibly to the German Magnificat by Heinrich Schütz, as the choirs were joined by organ and instruments. This was a relevant and important inclusion as Gabrieli himself taught Schütz in this multi-choral technique which Schütz then developed in his own style.
Clare Maclean’s moving Christ the King was sublimely sung, opening in the manner of a plainchant by the female voices which peeled off into mirroring phrases by the other voices, ending in a reprise of the plainchant. Premiered by this choir in 1984, it is precisely opportunities like these which new composers need for their music to be heard and re-heard until it becomes recognizable to listeners and enters the DNA of the concert repertoire.
The short and brilliant burst of Gabrieli’s Canzona seconda, C 187 from Camerata Antica showcased these rudimentary instruments in all their imperfect glory as the choir positioned itself for Frank’s only unaccompanied choral work, the demanding Mass for double choir, considered to be one of the finest and most complex pieces of 20th century choral music. The choir did ample justice to this piece which incorporates the aesthetics of Renaissance music, French Impressionism, Schoenberg’s twelve-note system and J S Bach. The altos began the Kyrie with a freely-flowing, supplicating melody; the Gloria built step-wise to cluster chords; the Credo was a business-like affirmation of faith; the canon-styled Et Resurrexit was levity, hope and word-painting to perfection; the Sanctus introduced softer harmonies from the male voices. The mass, Version 1, ended with a powerful Benedictus. Fast forward to 1926 and Martin added the Agnus Dei, the crowning glory to this choral magnum opus. The mass culminated in a glorious unification of the choirs.
Brooke Shelley’s Heavenly Father, composed in 2022, performed in the presence of the composer was premiered in November 2022, by the Sydney Chamber Choir. A lyrical and beautifully textured piece, it is very pleasing that it has quickly been programmed again. Like the slightly older piece by Maclean, it is critical that new pieces of merit such as these, are given regular and frequent hearings so that they may be heard widely and face the test of time.
Finally, Gabrieli’s Magnificat a 14, C 79 brought together the full instrumental and vocal forces of the ensemble. Using the 16th century Venetian technique of cori spezzati (split choirs), the brighter sound of the female voices and cornetto took to the left gallery with the male voices and the thrilling grunt of the bass and other sackbutts in the right gallery with a mixed ensemble placed and organ placed centrally on stage.
This was an intelligent and audacious program from Allchurch, performed with glorious sound by a choir secure in technique, pitch and musicianship.